Silver staters of the Corinthian type, which show on their obverse
the mythological winged-horse Pegasus and on their reverse the
helmeted head of the goddess Athena, are among the most recognized of
The first coins of this type, often called “pegasi,” were struck
at the end of the sixth century B.C. at Corinth, a city strategically
located at the junction of mainland and Peloponnesian Greece.
The Corinthians founded many colonies, and these cities often
copied the coins of their mother city, helping to assure that pegasi
were issued outside of Greece proper. Colonial issues were
distinguished from those of Corinth by inscriptions and symbols of
local significance. Even some non-Corinthian colonies copied the
Pegasus-Athena design in hopes of garnering a commercial advantage.
Italy and Sicily had been aggressively colonized by Greeks since
the seventh century B.C. and the area was called Magna Graecia,
meaning “greater Greece.” Among the many Greek traditions exported to
this region was coinage, as the western pegasi clearly show.
The popularity of pegasi in Magna Graecia partly derived from the
fact that no important local sources of silver existed. Much of the
metal was imported from Greece in the form of coins. It was fortunate
for Corinth and its western colonies that other, major Greek silver
coinages — notably tetradrachms of the city of Athens and the
Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” (336 to 323 B.C.) —
typically were exported to the East. This seems to have allowed pegasi
to become a dominant foreign currency in Magna Graecia.
Not only are large hoards of pegasi found in southern Italy and
Sicily, but the coins themselves were used as planchets for some local
issues, as is shown by remnants of the Pegasus-Athena designs that
sometimes survived the overstriking process. Furthermore, one can only
guess how many coins of Magna Graecia were struck using silver
garnered from melted pegasi.
Though the main designs of pegasi are remarkably consistent,
regardless of the mint, they can be distinguished in many ways.
Foremost is an inscription, which indicates the city of issue.
Sometimes this is spelled out fully, but more often it is abbreviated
with one or more letters, or a monogram composed of letters. Other
times coin inscriptions present no conclusive evidence, and one can
only make an educated guess as to the mint of origin.
Large numbers of pegasi were struck at cities outside of Corinth,
including at several of its colonies along the northwest coast of
mainland Greece. The most prolific issuers of pegasi in this region
were Dyrrhachium, Leucas, Ambracia, Anactorium, Thyrrheium and Argos
Amphilochicum. The fact that many of these cities were only 50 to 80
miles across the Adriatic Sea from the “heel” of Italy assured the
popularity of pegasi on the northwest coast of mainland Greece.
Several cities in southern Italy struck their own pegasi. Most
issues were small, but a rather large one was produced late in the
fourth century B.C. at Locri, a city on the bottom of Italy’s “toe.”
In Sicily, a great number of pegasi were struck. As was the case
in the Italian peninsula, a variety of small issues circulated,
including ones from the cities of Leontini and Tauromenion. The vast
majority were struck at Syracuse, which had been founded by settlers
from Corinth in about 734 B.C. As the most successful Corinthian
colony in the West, Syracuse enjoyed strong ties with Corinth, which
proved useful on several occasions.
Syracusan pegasi seem to have been produced in three distinct
phases covering the period circa 345 to 289 B.C. The largest issue was
struck in about 341 B.C., when the Corinthian commander Timoleon
arrived to help the Syracusans oust the tyrant Dionysus II. The
expedition was a complete success, and the associated pegasi must have
been used to pay soldiers. These coins are easily identified by the
full inscription ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΩΝ (“[coin] of the Syracusans”), which
appears before the head of Athena.
This historical event established pegasi as the temporary coinage
of choice in Syracuse. About two generations afterward, new pegasi
were struck upon the accession of King Agathocles in 317 B.C. At this
point the traditional arrangement of obverse and reverse was changed:
Agathocles put the head of Athena on the obverse and relegated Pegasus
to the reverse.
Most pegasi of Agathocles bear the inscription of the Syracusans
and the trisceles symbol, comprised of three legs running in perpetual
motion. Not only was the trisceles this king’s personal badge, but it
also represented Sicily due to its similarity to the triangular shape
of the island. On these issues Athena wears a crested helmet, a design
similar to the presentation of this goddess on the gold coinage
introduced by Alexander III.
Sometime after 304 B.C., during the reign of Agathocles, the
weight standard of Syracusan pegasi was reduced by about 20 percent.
These “reduced standard” coins no longer bear the city’s ethnic
inscription, and retain only the king’s badge (the trisceles) or carry
an entirely different symbol.
A final reduction of Syracusan pegasi occurred under the city’s
next king, Hieron II (275 to 215 B.C.), who cut the weight by another
15 percent. Consequently, his coins are no longer considered to be
staters, but octobols. These rare coins bear the name of Hieron
beneath Pegasus on the reverse.
Though pegasi didn’t have as great an influence west of Sicily,
some coins produced in Spain depict Pegasus, including silver coins of
Osca and Emporium. Those of Emporium show on their obverse the head of
a nymph surrounded by four dolphins, a standard design for Syracusan
coins. This suggests the designs were derived from Syracusan coins
rather than any other issues of Southern Italy or Greece. ■